Family violence: When a loved one chooses to stay

New Zealand has the worst rate of family and intimate-partner violence in the world. Eighty per cent of incidents go unreported — so what we know of family violence in our community is barely the tip of the iceberg. Today is part four of We’re Better Than This, a week-long series on family violence. Our aim is to raise awareness, to educate, to give an insight into the victims and perpetrators. We want to encourage victims to have the strength to speak out, and abusers the courage to change their behaviour.
"She said things would get better. She said this despite his threatening to kill her." Photo / iStock
"She said things would get better. She said this despite his threatening to kill her." Photo / iStock

• Today we are telling the story of real victims. Some of this content may be confronting, graphic and upsetting. Please take care.

All names have been changed to protect the identity of the victim and her family.

For a long time, my sister Jessica maintained that her partner of more than 10 years was a good man.

She said he would never hurt her, or their two little girls. She said things would get better. She said the girls needed their father.

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She said this despite his threatening to kill her. She said this despite his threatening to burn down their home and their business. She said this despite his forcing her to have sex with him daily and demanding she perform oral sex on him in front of their preschool-aged girls when he came home from work at lunchtime.

It took a long time for her to stop making excuses for him.

He had driven most of her friends away and left her isolated. The family lived in the country; her constant excuses over a decade meant many friends had given up trying to see her, and he made it difficult for family to visit.

Around July last year, with a social worker from Women's Refuge on the line, I handed my phone to Jessica and told her they needed to talk. I was desperate. We were at my eldest sister Trish's house.

Jessica's partner didn't allow her to visit family, but she had packed the girls into the car that morning while he was out and driven 90 minutes to Trish's home to spend time with us.

It was after dinner. Jessica's two girls and my other young niece were in the bath. Our mother was there; she was so worried about Jessica that I feared the stress would kill her.

Jessica took the phone from me, backed into the corner of a dark bedroom and curled into a ball.

She talked to the social worker for an hour. In the 10 years that she had been with this man, it was the first time she had asked for help. She was 41.

That night, she told me it was the first time she'd felt safe in years.

A few weeks later, she left him.

With nothing but a nappy bag and her phone charger, she fled with the girls to a safe house, where she stayed for a month.

I was at work when she called me to tell me she'd done it. I stood up, I gasped for air like I had been underwater and clutched my head with my hands. Ten years of stress and anxiety evaporated.

In the safe house, the girls thrived. Her 3-year-old called it the "happy house". The 2-year-old no longer clung to her mother. Neither girl asked where her father was.

But things were still tough. Overnight, Jessica had become a solo mum living in an unfamiliar house. My mother, in her 70s, helped out, but there were new anxieties and stresses to deal with. Trips to lawyers and counsellors were constant. Money was in short supply. There were applications to Work and Income, and for legal aid.

There was a persistent fear that the girls' father would find out where they were. He had guns.

Jessica and I met in a park one day. The girls happily played on swings and slides while my sister and I tried not to panic whenever a car drove past.

My mother became sick. Anxiety was keeping her awake at night. I helped where I could, but a full-time job a 90-minute drive away didn't make things easy. Eventually, Jessica sold the house her girls had grown up in, the house her 3-year-old called "the angry house". She rented a flat and started again.

Then her partner returned.

The last time we spoke, in January, I called to say I was dropping around to see her and my nieces. It was a few days before her younger daughter's birthday, and I had a present. Jessica told me I couldn't come over, because the girls' father was at her home. I lost my temper. I shouted. She hung up on me.

I sat in my car and cried. I was scared and sad. But I was also angry, so angry that the time, the effort, the money, the phone calls, the sleepless nights, the sickness and the stress that my family and I had gone through to help her had been for nothing.

In a text message, I sent Jessica the affidavit notes she'd sent me starting the year before. They were a transcript of some of the things he'd said and done to her.

"If I want a woman," he once told her, "I just get one, f**k her, and then tell her to f**k off like I should have done to you when I first met you years ago. That's all women are good for. You f**k them, then get rid of them quick.

"You have trapped me here in New Zealand and I will never forgive you for it. I will make your life miserable and destroy everything you have.

"You are a failure in life. You just exist. You would be better off dead."

"You think this is bad; it's going to get a lot worse for you. Every day, I will follow you around and let you know what I think of you... I will make your life hell from now on. Just you wait, this is nothing. You can't get away from me. I will destroy you."

I read her reply last week, while writing this piece.

"I'm in control of my life and making the right decisions. I'm not blaming anyone, my life was very stressful and we both were in crisis when I did what I did, and I've always regretted that," she said.

Neither me nor mum nor Trish has seen Jessica or the girls since January. She has cut all contact with us as she returns to her life with him.

Why doesn't she leave?

Many New Zealanders, thankfully, will never experience domestic violence.

Most of us know what it is, but we cannot actually fathom being in such a situation.

"Why doesn't she just leave?' is a common question posed from those who have never experienced abuse, violence and living in fear on a daily basis.

On average, when a woman leaves a violent home she will make between four and seven attempts before she is successful.

There are many reasons these women, and men, don't "just leave".

According to the Women's Refuge website, the main reason domestic violence victims don't leave violent partners is because they simply do not feel safe enough to go.

Other factors that make escape extremely challenging include embarrassment, shame, financial dependence on their abuser, fear of what will happen to their children and a lack of support.

A large number of women also lack an understanding of domestic violence and perhaps do not realise they are victim at first, or the ongoing torture has eroded their self-esteem and confidence and they do not feel capable of leaving.

To put it bluntly, for women in a violent relationship, leaving takes planning, support and courage. It is not a case of packing a bag and walking out the front door.

Here are the 10 most common reasons women in violent relationships choose to stay with their abuser.

• If i leave I won't know where and when he will come for me.
• What will I do for money? What if I can't get a job?
• I have nowhere to go. My family don't live close and my friends don't have room.
• What if I lose my kids? He's threatened to say I'm a bad mother.
• My family comes first. I need to stay with him for the sake of our kids.
• What if no one believes me?
• I still love him, I don't want to leave. I don't like his behaviour but he's a good person.
• I will lose everything - my house, car, friends, money.
• I don't want people to judge me. I am ashamed this has happened to me.
• Isn't this normal? I'm sure this happens in most homes.

What to do

• Let her know you will always be there, no matter what and even if she turns you away.
-• Be supportive and listen. Tell her she is not alone and you want to help when she is ready.
• Don't blame, shame, judge or make her feel guilty. Never say "you just need to leave". Instead, tell her you are scared for her and want to help but understand her situation is difficult.
• If she decides to stay, continue to be supportive. She may also leave and then go back many times. Whatever she does, don't give up.
• You cannot simply "rescue" her. She is the only person who can decide
• Keep in mind that you can't "rescue" her. She has to be the one to decide to leave or ask for help.
• Support her, no matter what her decision.

If you're in danger NOW:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you
• Run outside and head for where there are other people
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you
• Take the children with you
• Don't stop to get anything else
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Women's Refuge: Free national crisisline operates 24/7 - 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisisline 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz

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Take a stand - NZ is #BetterThanThis

New Zealand has the worst rate of family violence in the developed world. One in three women will be subjected to physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lives.

Take a stand. Change your social media profile picture to demand that we are better than this. Right-click on this image below (or press and hold on your mobile device) to save, then upload to your social profiles. Or you can download the image here.

- NZ Herald

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